It was clear immediately: Michelle Yeoh was the only choice to play a goddess, says Kelvin Yu.
Yu is the showrunner of American Born Chinese, which is based on Gene Luen Yang’s groundbreaking graphic novel that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a regular American teenager whose life is forever changed when he befriends the son of a mythological god. The story, of a young man’s battle for his own identity, is told through family, comedy, and action-packed Kung-Fu.
In the narrative, Oscar winner Yeoh plays who plays an unassuming auntie who maintains her secret identity as the Goddess of Compassion;
The series also stars Ben Wang in the lead role, and yet another Oscar winne, Ke Huy Quan, who plays Freddy Wong, a fictional character from a popular mid-1990s sitcom;
Also, the series creator, Yu is joined on the creative team by Destin Daniel Cretton, who serves as executive producer and director. Yang rounds out the team as an executive producer of the series.
Yeoh explains that, “In the Chinese families, you have an altar, and you always have the Goddess of Mercy, because she’s the Goddess of Compassion and she is there ‑‑ she didn’t go back to the heavens, because she stayed to look after the people of the world. So, all of us have the Goddess of Mercy in our house.”
Because of this, Yu says, “When you’re casting that role, it’s sort of like casting the Queen of England or the Great Gatsby or something — you need somebody that has that kind of weight, and I don’t know that there’s anybody more than Michelle Yeoh who can enter a room and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s a goddess.’”
However, as lofted as the Goddess of Mercy is, Yeoh says that, “what we wanted to bring to the story here and make her also relatable in some ways. So, when she is on earth, I’m sort of the auntie. And I love the way we changed her look from this goddess into she was wearing, like, sweats and baseball cap and things like that.”
She says that even given the this shift in wardrobe, “we were always, always very respectful of the Goddess of Mercy, because she’s very, very iconic in our world. And we had to be careful of how we did that without taking too much liberty and sort of damaging her persona. But it was really fun.”
The challenge for her, says Yeoh, for was in the fight sequences. “Working together with our stunt coordinator, I was like, ‘She is the Goddess of Mercy. She doesn’t hit people. She’s not supposed to be throwing punches and kicking, so we did it in such a way, it was always deflective. It was almost like a dance.”
As for casting Quan, Yu says, “We had a character that surprises you — without giving anything away, and, Ke is nothing if not an actor who surprises you.”
Quan points out that, “when the show comes out, I think the audience is going to have a range of emotions; some are going to be very angry with it, some are going to think it’s funny. In fact, when I was on set playing this character, I went through that range of emotions. And it’s okay, because that is something for us to talk about and to make progress, to be better. But it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Of course, a lot has changed, but I want the audience to see it.”
He also is delighted that, “We’ve been talking [about] representation, and I don’t think there’s ever been a show like American Born Chinese on television that is so well done — the story is amazing, and it features an entire Asian cast.”
As for infusing the narrative with the Asian culture, Cretton feels that, “audiences [don’t] want the generic version of culture, or a surface representation of a culture. So, the specificities that you put into the details don’t need to be explained. Whether you know that culture or not, I feel like those specifics are really lovely and makes the show that you are watching feel more authentic, which was something that we were going for from the beginning.”
Wu points out that “We’ve been talking about this fantasy and superheroes, but the core of this story is his family and this kid who is trying to fit in in America, and trying to fit in in high school. Everyone has gone through that experience.”
Yang, agrees, saying that since his book came out 15 years ago, through his discussions at libraries and universities, he’s found that, “when you tell stories that are incredibly specific, they become universal, and it’s almost like the specific details is what makes it universal.”
He adds that often after speaking to groups, “I’ll have students who are from different immigrant families where the parents come from all over the world and they’ll talk to me about how the story spoke to them. I’m hoping that that holds true for the show as well.”
‘American Born Chinese’ is available for streaming now on Disney+.